Wayne interfaith group helps ease tension

Wayne interfaith group helps ease tension

Successfully drafts resolution with input from the Jewish and Palestinian communities 

Rabbi Randall Mark
Rabbi Randall Mark

We have heard a lot about tensions that have arisen in cities and towns in our area, and across the country, since October 7. About schools, town council meetings, board of education meetings, and local streets becoming venues for protests about events in the Middle East, and often targeting or intimidating local residents.

In Wayne, leaders have been working to lower tensions. Working together is not always easy, and since it requires the buy-in of leaders on both sides, it is not always possible. But recent events in Wayne make the benefits of working together clear.

For many years, Rabbi Randall Mark, who leads Congregation Shomrei Torah, a Conservative shul in the township, has been part of a clergy group that includes rabbis, priests, ministers, and an imam. The group confronts issues affecting the larger community and has coordinated a number of joint events, including an interfaith Thanksgiving service and a series on different religious traditions.

“There was actually a very cool moment last year,” Rabbi Mark said. “We did an iftar” — the fast-breaking evening meal Muslims eat during Ramadan — “together at the synagogue, and a group of people from my synagogue and a group of people from the local Muslim community got together during the day in our synagogue kitchen and cooked the meal. It was a kosher vegetarian meal.

“When minyan time rolled around, a group of us left the social hall, where this was taking place, and went down to the library for minyan. And it happened to be that at the same time the men from their group wanted to pray, so we opened a classroom for them.” The two rooms were in close proximity, “and we could hear them praying in Arabic, and they could hear us praying in Hebrew, and it was a very cool experience. Everybody really liked it, and it was just serendipity, it hadn’t been planned.

“But it led us to talking about the things we have in common, as opposed to the things that divide us.”

The imam in the clergy group represents the Turkish Albanian community, which, “at least in our community, is a different group from the Palestinian Arab community,” Rabbi Mark said. The group has not been able to integrate the Palestinian Arab community because, although members of that community live in Wayne, “to use our language, they daven in all different communities, because there isn’t a Palestinian Arab mosque in Wayne.”

So the Palestinian community does not have a clergy person in Wayne to join the group, and until recently, Rabbi Mark did not know any of the community’s leaders.

After the October 7 attack, as tensions were rising in schools, a fifth-grader changed their profile picture in their Google classroom to the Palestinian flag with a fist in the middle, Rabbi Mark said. Jewish parents complained to the principal and were told that the student had a First Amendment right to use the picture. Some Jewish parents reached out to Rabbi Mark and to Rabbi Brian Beal, who leads Temple Beth Tikvah, a Reform shul in the township, about the situation. “We had some antisemitism in town 10 or 15 years ago ,and we worked through the clergy group, which was very supportive, and didn’t make it a Jewish issue,” Rabbi Mark said. So the two rabbis discussed the incident with the rest of the group, and the consensus was that it was likely “a current manifestation of the bias and the bigotry that we’re seeing in the community at large.”

Rabbi Beal, a minister, and the imam from the group reached out to the superintendent of schools, Rabbi Mark continued. They told him they thought it was important to lower the temperature in the schools, and that allowing these types of actions could inflame matters. They pointed out that saying students have a First Amendment right to choose a picture could end up with other students putting up Israeli flags, and that the fallout likely would not be limited to this issue.

For example, one student might put up a Pride flag, and another could respond with an anti-LGBTQ slogan. The three suggested compiling a list of icons and allowing students to use only their own pictures or one of the icons on the list. The superintendent confirmed that the proposal was legal and suggested it to the school board. The Palestinian community saw this as an attack on them and their rights and encouraged members of their community to attend the school board meeting. Then the Jewish community responded by feeling that they too had to encourage people to attend.

“So we ended up having this school board meeting, this was probably in November, where one side of the room, it was all Jewish people from town, and some people not from town, and on the other side were Palestinians from town and some not from town,” Rabbi Mark said.

Before the meeting started, the school board announced that it was withdrawing the proposal and it would not be voted on. “So we thought that was the end of that,” Rabbi Mark said. “But in what I would say was a poorly run meeting, they allowed people to get up and speak on the issue even though it wasn’t being voted on, which, in retrospect, was a horrible idea, because most of the people didn’t talk about the motion itself but about what was going on in Israel and in Gaza. And it was a very unpleasant meeting. It was very heated and very hostile.

“The only good that came out of it was that after the meeting, in the parking lot, in disgust, Rabbi Beal ended up in a conversation with Ahab Husein, an equally mortified member of the Palestinian community.”

A few weeks later, the town council passed a resolution supporting Israel and condemning Hamas, Rabbi Mark continued. “It was the same one that Congress had passed, so there was nothing particularly radical about it.” The Palestinian Muslim community in town was upset and asked the council to rescind it. The council refused but said it would allow members of that community to put forth a resolution of their own. Its draft resolution appeared to have been modeled after “some of the other draft resolutions that have been used in New Jersey in communities that are not particularly fond of Israel or the Jewish community, and it was not well received by the town council,” Rabbi Mark said. The council told the group that it would have to come up with something that would pass muster with the general community.

Mr. Husein was one of the people working on an updated draft. He reached out to Rabbi Beal and asked to discuss the resolution. Rabbi Beal and Rabbi Mark met with Mr. Husein and the handful of others who were working on it. Rabbi Beal was going out of town, so Rabbi Mark ended up doing a lot of the work with the group. Together, they reworked the original draft, “from my perspective, removing the things that were most egregious to the Jewish community, and from their perspective, keeping the things that they felt were most essential to have,” Rabbi Mark said.

“In isolation, it’s not a resolution that we would particularly like or support, but as a balancing act in response to the first one, I felt it was the least bad option.” And he was hopeful that the resolution would “put some closure on things,” because the town had seen a spike of conflict among kids in the schools, “mostly with the Jewish kids feeling targeted and intimidated by Palestinian kids.

“I think my greatest concern was the kids and what was going on in the schools and what we could do to improve what was going on there. I think the hope was that if a resolution got passed, and the community felt acknowledged by the township leadership and weren’t quite so angry at home, that that might soften some of the rhetoric that leads to kids doing and saying thing that, clearly, they’re learning at home.”

The group brought the draft to the town council whose members “were kind of surprised we were working together on this,” Rabbi Mark continued. The council passed the resolution and “asked all of us to stand together in solidarity at the meeting where it was read and then voted upon. And so I did that with these local Palestinian leaders.”

Now that Rabbi Mark has connected with them, “it gives me someone to talk to if I feel like there’s a need for communal dialogue,” he said. And he hopes members of the local Palestinian community will start to join the events the clergy group coordinates. “We’re inviting them to come to these sessions where people are engaged in dialogue and learning about each other.”

To the best of his knowledge, there has been only one formal protest in Wayne, and “it was a group of outside agitators, as opposed to local residents,” he said. They drove from community to community one day and Wayne was one of their stops. “They marched up one of the major streets and then they got into their cars and drove off to the next community. The Jewish community was aware of it, and we just decided the best course of action was to ignore it, so we didn’t go, we didn’t counterprotest, we didn’t say anything about it.”

There have been other incidents in the schools. A parent who was at a field to watch their child’s soccer game recently sent Rabbi Mark a picture of a swastika carved into the stand. But they haven’t been communal and organized, Rabbi Mark said. “And my hope would be that if something came up, since we’ve opened these lines of communication, that we’d pick up the phone and call each other and say let’s get together and see what we can do to diffuse the situation.”

Rabbi Mark is not sure why things have been quieter in Wayne than in some other localities. “While the town doesn’t have a large Jewish population, Wayne has three synagogues, Shomrei Torah, Beth Tikvah, and a Chabad, which gives us more visibility than surrounding communities,” he said.

“In my conversation with the Palestinian leaders, the sense is that everybody’s looking for a way to live together in suburban New Jersey in spite of what’s going on in the world. I think that obviously we all look at what’s going on in the Middle East very differently. And they are horrified by what’s going on in Gaza, and they would like to see it stop, and they hold Israel responsible. But they also understand that we have a different perspective. I think that what they would like to see is peace and stability for their people there and for the friends and relatives they have to not be endangered and dying. Which I can appreciate.

“It certainly made a statement when I stood up with the Palestinian leaders behind the president of the town council while he read the resolution. We talked about the fact that we had all worked on it together.

“So there’s certainly an awareness that we’re trying to work together for the benefit of both local communities, recognizing that we can’t solve the problems of the world but we would like to try to keep the problems of the world from tearing us apart locally.”

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